Washing wool and other animal fibers can be tricky. If you do it wrong you get a glopping wet mass of felt. No fun at all and potentially costly if not a waste of time and effort. Some fibers are easier than others to wash and are more tolerant of agitation but all can and will mat up if mishandled.
This is a dead simple way to accomplish the task. There are of course other ways to wash fiber and wool can even be spun from the "grease" with no washing at all... but that's pretty nasty. Some animals are cleaner than others and some also tend to just be naturally kind of clean overall but they all smell and even if your unwashed fleece is tolerable when received, it's going to smell when it hits the water.
That said, other than being stinky it's a pretty easy job and requires almost no "tools". As mentioned above, there are several ways to do this. There is even a great Instructable that shows how to wash "dog fur" in a far more modern way that is identical to methods for washing wool.
I learned to process wool in a living history setting for demonstration purposes and have done it countless times. We couldn't use mesh bags or washing machines. Definitely labor intensive but if you only process and spin just a little at a time it's fine. So, that's what I'm showing here.
An important note may be that if you ask around long enough you might be able to get fleece or other fibers "for the asking" but it will almost certainly not be washed. If you are spinning or knitting on a budget this comes in handy. There is also a certain degree of satisfaction in taking wool "from sheep to shawl".
Step 1: What You Will Need
Gather there things.
Wool or other animal fiber(Own a long haired dog?)
A towel or table cloth
Enough very hot water to fill the bucket a few times
An airy place to work and dry your fiber without having it trampled, tracked or blown across the yard
A muslin bag or a large basket
For this Instructable I used a couple ounces of very nice wool from New Zealand that I picked up on Ebay. Raw fleece is substantially cheaper than yarn or even processed wool and is readily available all over the web.
For my bucket I used a simple plastic hardware store model. It could be about any sort of bucket as long as it's clean. Maybe avoid a rusty one but that's about it.
This is incredibly important. You must use detergent as opposed to soap. There is a big difference for this application. Detergent will loosen and float away the oil and dirt and generally icky stuff. Soap on the other hand will not do nearly as good a job at that and will also leave a sticky residue that can ruin your fleece for all but felting. Dawn dish detergent is my weapon of choice. The yellow kind was my favorite but blue is fine too. You can use any detergent you like. Historically this would have likely been something like stale urine or ox gall. Even living history programs balk at this.
A towel or table cloth to first blot the fibers a little and then give them something clean to dry on. I just spread this batch out on the bathroom floor.
Hot water, very hot. You need the water to be hot enough to soften and dissolve the lanolin and other sticky oils. You won't be scrubbing or agitating the fiber so you need the combination of very hot water and detergent to do the heavy lifting for you. It will take several "rinses" with the hot water and detergent to get your fleece clean. So if you don't want to turn up your water heater a bit you may need to heat some water on the stove. Be prepared to heat water while your fiber is soaking in the previous bath. You don't want it to cool off or get cold. That's very bad too.
Room to work is important. It's nice if you can do this on a warm summer day out on the lawn but if you live in a city or are processing fiber in wet or cold weather it's not practical. Just make sure to have enough room to slosh around dirty water and then lay out your fleece to dry where it gets enough air to do so. If your fleece stays wet too long and mildews you'll be sad.
Optionally you could use a loosely woven muslin bag or a large basket that will allow for air circulation. You can hang the bag from a tree or clothes line to dry or leave a basket of fleece in the sun. You will need to gently fluff the fiber to ensure it gets dry all the way through. This option might be important if you have little indoor space or it's too windy to let it dry outside in the open.
A note about the smell, this stuff can really stink up a small space and literally drive family members and roommates outside. It'll serve you well to consider who might have to put up with it before you start.
Step 2: Into the Bath
Pour in maybe a quarter cup of detergent at most. You want it strong enough to work but not sudsy. That's just a hassle because you can't run water on the fleece itself. No agitation! It'll felt. That means it's a lot harder to rinse out suds.
Fill the bucket most of the way full with hot water. Very hot in this case should be a bit too hot to put your hands in. I used water from our instant hot tap that's set at about 190F. Not sure what the minimum would be but that works well for me.
Now take your fleece and gently set it on top of the water. It should sink quite a bit on it's own. Let it do that and slowly add more until there are only a few inches of water at the top. You want to give the grease somewhere to go and be able to tip the water off with the grease floating on it so that it doesn't settle back into the fiber.
You can gently push the fiber down with a clean stick or wooden spoon to get it the rest of the way under. Do not stir or agitate the fiber. You will be tempted to do it but don't! While hot water aids in the shrinking and matting it is actually agitation that binds the fibers. Let it soak!
Fifteen minutes is probably sufficient. Another important thing is to not let the water cool too much. At this stage you are in to to the end. If you stop the grease will be more evenly distributed and have soaked into the fiber even worse if it is allowed to cool.
Now would be a good time to go heat more water if you need to.
Step 3: Drain and Repeat
When you have the next round of hot water ready you can pour off the water in the bucket. It's going to be pretty filthy the first couple times. Just dump it out taking care to hold the fleece in the bucket and not dump it along with the dirty water. I do this with my hand. It's kind of hot but it's the easiest way i have found.
Just let it drain like you might with pasta. Just takes a little patience.
It's also a good idea to leave it piled up on one side of the bucket after you drain the water and tip it up. That way you can add the next batch or detergent without pouring it directly on the fiber as well as refill your bucket with minimal agitation of the fleece from running water.
Once you have the detergent in the bucket fill it up again and repeat until you are satisfied with how clean the water you are pouring off is.
Some spinners avoid getting the water completely clean so as to leave a small amount of lanolin in the wool. This is thought to make spinning a bit easier. I tend to agree but I'm not an "expert' spinner. There are far better than me on both sides of the discussion. Though, many of the extra clean folks do add commercial lanolin back into their fleece. For my part I'd rather spare the extra step and expense of the lanolin if it's already there.
Step 4: Final Rinse and Dry It
Once the gross stuff is gone you will want to rinse with cooler water. Plain tap water from a hose is fine. Simply fill the bucket while avoiding agitation and never run water over the fleece. Then drain it off and repeat until the detergent is gone. You can still make a felted mess if you aren't careful. You'll get a feel for it after a time or two and I'm admittedly erring on the safe side.
Once the water drains clear you'll want to spread the fleece on your towel or table cloth to dry. Some people like to use screens or mesh bags but this works for me. Just make sure it's in an even layer with plenty of room for air circulation. I also pull apart any clumps or mats as I spread it and pick out large pieces of grass, burs, burs twigs, etc.
Now just let it dry thoroughly. It should be bone dry before you bag it for storage or further processing and spinning.
Step 5: Storage
I sometimes keep washed fleece in large plastic zipper seal bags while it waits to be spun. This keeps moths out of it and keeps it clean.
An important trick for long term storage is to put your bags of fiber in a freezer for 72 hours or so, remove them for about the same and then pop em right back in for another 72 hours. This kills any moths or larvae that might have gotten into your precious fleece and wipes out any that may hatch from eggs once they are tricked into thinking winter is over.
Once you do this, so long as you keep the bag closed, your wool or other fiber should store well indefinitely. Even if I plan on spinning right away I try to keep the fleece in plastic bags to protect it and keep a watchful eye out even after running it through the freezer. I'm probably just paranoid but I hate to lose fleece to bug food.
Note, you can also do the freezer with finished skeins of yarn if you think moths are attacking it.
Even with this simple method you can easily stock up a good stash of fiber ready for spinning when the mood hits you.So, Now it's time to learn to card or comb your fleece and get spinning!
You might also want to make your own "drop spindle". Here's a way to make a nice one both quickly and inexpensively!
After that you might also want to look here for a great Instructable on spinning!